ESPN Is Looking Ahead to Changes

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ESPN marks its 25th anniversary on Sept. 7. But movements are already afoot that will result in significant differences to a number of the sports giant’s properties well before it celebrates birthday No. 26.

Plans are underway aimed at making ESPN2’s identity more distinct from its progenitor, while ESPN Broadband is gearing up for a revamp slated to be revealed early next year. More immediate changes are also in store at ESPN.com (www.espn.com) and SportsCenter, which will visit Kuwait next weekend.

These developments and other news tidbits were revealed during a media symposium held here last week at ESPN’s corporate headquarters.

MORE ORIGINALS DUE

While emphasizing that live events will always remain at ESPN2’s core, ESPN vice president of programming and production Mark Shapiro said the network will become the home to more original content.

“I think ESPN2 is the next frontier for us and I think we have a terrific strategy to really position ESPN Original Entertainment as one of the main veins of ESPN2,” he said. “So you’ll turn to ESPN2 for live events and ESPN Original Entertainment. But you’ll turn to ESPN for live news, events and information.”

Along those lines, Shapiro said shows like NFL Live and NBA Fast Break will migrate to ESPN, with more tennis going to ESPN2, where the sport will join the National Hockey League, World Cup soccer and National Hot Rod Association drag racing, and “in a perfect world, NASCAR would have some part of a home on ESPN2.” Shapiro intimated that the company is interested in regaining some National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing rights, when they become available: “With the right deal we could be stronger with them.”

In the meantime, ESPN2 is putting plans into play that will give the network more original programming in morning, evening and late-night dayparts. A pilot for ESPN Hollywood (Shapiro said think Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood) will be filmed on Sept. 13 and could result in a half-hour weeknight show meshing the worlds of sports and entertainment at 6 p.m. That would be followed by a personality-driven news and information program (Shapiro mentioned “Bill O’Reilly for sports”), serving as a lead-in to the network’s live event fare.

Shapiro also said a late-night interview-type show, which could air before a live audience, is in the works, as is a new sports information and news show that would serve as a table-setter for current original daypart entry Cold Pizza, which will celebrate its first anniversary on Oct. 3.

Shapiro’s plan calls for Cold Pizza, which he said has been sold-out with advertisers, to be moved back an hour to 8 to 10 a.m. and for a change to its current format.

“The feedback clearly is that the viewers want more sports out of it. The bookings have been terrific, but we need to make a move on the ratings. So instead of being a variety sports show with hardcore [sports] sprinkled in, it will be a hardcore sports show with variety sprinkled in,” he said.

To that end, Shapiro said ESPN2 had just signed Skip Bayless to join fellow sportswriter and ESPN talent Woody Paige on the show. (Elsewhere, Shapiro announced that Pardon The Interruption hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon were on board for another five years.)

Shapiro said the morning changes would be enacted by late November, while all of these new original programming gambits should be in place by next spring’s upfront advertising season.

Asked about new network prospects, Shapiro referenced George Bodenheimer’s remarks on Aug. 31, when the ESPN and ABC Sports president pointed to outdoors, college sports, motor sports and alternate athletics (such as the X Games) as the most likely targets.

“The bottom line is we have evaluated five, six different ideas over the last 18 months. You know, it’s time to fish or cut bait. We’d like to get moving on something,” he said.

Signature show SportsCenter will visit the Middle East next weekend when it stops at Camp Arifjan Army base in Kuwait, playing before some 1,200 servicemen and women. Starting on Sept 11’s 10 a.m. show, SportsCenter will run segments from Kuwait on all its shows. Over the next five nights, the 1 and 2 a.m. SportsCenters will be presented entirely live, according to SportsCenter managing editor Norby Williamson.

“Sports is a joy and a relief for us here at home. We want to give something back to the men and women serving our country,” said Williamson.

Kenny Mayne and Steve Levy will serve as anchors, with Lisa Salters as reporter.

This is not the first time SportsCenter, which often televises remotely from the sites of big events like the World Series, has originated abroad. Williamson said the show was held at the Olympics in Barcelona in 1992 and from the British Open, among other locations.

And more new sites could be on the way. Shapiro said there were originally plans to take SportsCenter to Germany and to a five-day series from military bases across the U.S. A plan to take the show to various locales on Saturday mornings under the heading of Saturday Morning Live is “kind of on the back burner for now.”

ESPN also has plenty cooking on various technology fronts. It will rev up its HDTV production in 2005 to some 6,000 hours covering 2,000 programs in the format. In addition, ESPN HD chief Bryan Burns said the network will present 300 live events, more than double the 145 planned for this year.

A NEW 'NATION’

Elsewhere, ESPN.com editor Neal Scarbrough said a revamped “Sports Nation” — the Web site’s fan meeting place — will be unveiled on Sept. 8. The area will look to draw “appointment chatting” with athletes and ESPN talent, beginning that day with SportsCenter and ESPN Radio anchor Dan Patrick.

It will also have the flexibility to become a forum of another kind. “If there’s a Kobe [Bryant] verdict, then we’ll turn it into a message board and let folks talk about it,” said Scarbrough, hours before the prosecution in Eagle County, Colo., dropped its sexual assault case against the Los Angeles Lakers star.

At ESPN Broadband, many modifications are being developed — including previews and behind-the-scenes footage from EOE fare — for a revised platform that will be unveiled early next year. One change some viewers already likely witnessed: live Webcasts of four World Cup of Hockey qualifying games this past weekend.

ESPN Broadband and Interactive general manager Tanya Van Court said National Collegiate Athletic Association football and basketball games also will be streamed this fall.

Van Court said ESPN Broadband apparently has 13 affiliates, including Charter Communications Inc., Adelphia Communications Corp. and Susquehanna Communications.

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